Sandy Hook, Aurora, Café Racer, Columbine. It’s as if listing these names will bring some constellation of violence into focus or stop our orbit in its tracks.
In a prelude to Gun Control Theatre Action Week (May 27–June 2), Theatre Simple presented 12 short plays at West of Lenin on May 2, each of them swirling with contradiction, questions and cries for help. Watching them was like staring down the barrel of the American collective unconscious.
The plays came from a new collection titled 24 Gun Control Plays, created when Caridad Svich, founder of New York’s NoPassport Theatre Alliance, issued a call to action asking artists to create works dealing with the issue of gun violence. In Seattle, local audiences went in seeking solutions and left with solace.
In Svich’s piece, The Wake, two speakers exchange narrations of life in the wake of tragedy. “We tell ourselves everything’s going to be okay,” “we tweet, text and blog” “we chalk up all of these losses to some strange machinery.” The power in these phrases comes from their nationwide familiarity. Nearly each sentence begins with “we” because they are words anyone might have written. One actor summarizes, “We think these things in the still dark, alone.”
Theatre allows us to think these things in the still dark, together. The thoughts are as hectic and dizzying as violence itself, but spoken aloud on stage they become complete, organized, a self-contained entity. This is the way in which art makes sense of the senseless.
Many of the other pieces share the quality of stream-of-consciousness confessional. Their evocations of daily American life— texting, television, Kraft singles, credit cards—makes one consider whether we’ve created a society that is making us unhappy, stifling some essential part of our humanity.
In Alex Broun’s 50 Guns, an actor sifts through a pile of weapons, identifying each one by the person it killed. If there is no sense in listing places, perhaps there will be in listing names: Abraham Lincoln, John Lennon, Martin Luther King, Jr., Trayvon Martin. The narrator speaks of her fascination with guns as objects, “Their sleekness, their shininess, the elegance of their design.” Like swords in medieval times, guns are both a symbol of power and an extension of the self.
A majority of the pieces were written in a single voice. A gun, like a soliloquy, is a solitary instrument of expression—it is the isolated individual’s weapon of choice. Guns are at once personal and impersonal, active and detached, intimate and anonymous, as contradictory as our human rights.
In theatre, the rule of Chekhov’s gun states that if a gun is put on the mantle in the first act, it must go off in the third. Chekhov meant this as a rule for writers about intentionality, but does it also say something about inevitability? When we line our national stage with assault rifles, shotguns and revolvers, how can we expect them to not go off? Perhaps the truest gun control theatre action we can take as a country is to re-write act one.
Gun Control Theatre Action Week takes place worldwide from May 27–June 2.